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Tracking modern conveniences in the home

This article looks at the major household appliances tracked in the consumers price index (CPI) from 1949 to 2012.

Before 1949, the prices of very few household appliances were tracked in what was then called the retail prices index. Those present were classified to the ‘household ironmongery and brushware’ category. From 1924, prices had been collected for washing boards, clothes-wringers, and brooms. 

In 1949, when the modern CPI was first published, major household appliances were introduced into the basket of goods and services. These included washing machines, sewing machines, vacuum cleaners, and lawn mowers.

Machines replace copper tubs for washing

In 1949, the average price of a washing machine was about £60, equivalent to about $4,170 in the December 2012 quarter after allowing for general inflation (ie in today’s terms). It was quite a significant outlay for households in those days, so many did not have a washing machine.

The 1956 Census asked about refrigerators and electric washing machines in New Zealand households for the first time. Over 40 percent of New Zealanders did not have access to an electric clothes-washing machine (Department of Statistics, 1956).

People without electric washing machines still relied on the old method of ‘boiling the copper’ to do their laundry (Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2012).

‘Boiling the copper’ was a method of washing clothes in a deep copper tub. A mini-furnace beneath the tub “would heat the water where the clothes were to be washed – or at least boiled! Garments reluctant to give up their stains were manually scrubbed on a ribbed washboard” (Smith, nd).

With this method, laundry had to be twisted and squeezed by hand or put through a clothes-wringer to extract water. The clothes-wringer was also part of the 1949 CPI basket. A hand-type clothes-wringer was about £6 and 10 shillings in 1949 (about $450 in today’s terms).

More sophisticated models of washing machines were introduced over the following decades. These included features like spin-drying, and controls for wash temperature and agitation speed. In 1965, semi-automatic washing machines with spin dryer were added to the CPI basket. Their average price was £109 (about $4,050 in today’s terms).

Over the years, washing machine ownership gradually increased. By the 1966 Census, 88 percent of New Zealand households had access to a washing machine (Department of Statistics, 1966).

The average price of a washing machine with a 5.5-kilogram loading was approximately $780 in the December 2012 quarter.

Historically, clothes dryers were a “luxury that many did not indulge in until the mid-1930s” (Bailey, nd). Over the few decades after then, more brands and models entered the market and prices became more affordable to households. However, it wasn’t until 1974 that clothes dryers were added to the CPI basket.

In the 1976 Census, 38 percent of households had electric clothes dryers (Department of Statistics, 1980).

Also, instead of asking households about just an electric washing machine, the 1976 Census asked about ownership of fully-automatic washing machines. At that time, 38 percent of households owned a fully-automatic washing machine (Department of Statistics, 1980). These were different from the electric washing machines asked about in the 1966 Census, thus ownership was significantly lower than the percentage in 1966 (88 percent).

By definition, a fully-automatic washing machine is one that only requires you to load the dirty laundry at the start and unload the clean laundry after the wash. The other type, a semi-automatic machine, involved some manual work – the washer and spin dryer were separate units so loading and unloading was done more than once (Khoria, 2009).

Refrigerators and freezers tracked from 1955

Refrigerators were added to the CPI basket in 1955, six years after the modern CPI was first published. Although refrigerators had been around for decades, only about half of New Zealand homes had access to one.

In the 1956 Census, 54 percent of New Zealand dwellings had the sole or shared use of a refrigerator (Department of Statistics, 1956). Those who did not have access to one stored perishables like meat in a food safe – a box with a netting side through which air circulated (Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2012).

The average price of a single cabinet refrigerator in 1955 was £98 (about $4,770 today), which was nearly 60 percent more expensive than a washing machine at that time (£62).

In the 1956 Census, the median income for males was £715 (before-tax) a year (Department of Statistics, 1956). Based on this, it took about seven weeks’ (before-tax) income to cover the price of a refrigerator and about five weeks’ income to cover the price of a washing machine.

Ten years later, prices had become marginally cheaper in today’s terms and new models and technologies had been introduced, such as the addition of freezer compartments. In 1965, a dual-temperature refrigerator (with separate deep-freeze compartment) was added to the CPI basket. This model had an average price of £119 (about $4,380 in today’s terms), while the single-cabinet model was £109 (about $4,050 today). Based on Quarterly Employment Survey (QES) data, the average ordinary time (before-tax) weekly earnings of paid employees was £17 in 1965. It therefore took more than six weeks’ earnings to cover the price of a single-cabinet refrigerator at that time.

In the 1971 Census, 96 percent of New Zealand households had refrigerators, while 92 percent had washing machines (Department of Statistics, 1975).

Prices of refrigerator-freezers have become cheaper over the decades in today’s terms. In the December 2012 quarter, a refrigerator-freezer with 373-litre capacity was about $1,470. This is less than two weeks of the QES average ordinary time (before-tax) weekly earnings ($872 for the same period).

Stand-alone freezers were added to the CPI basket in 1974. While some modern refrigerators included a separate compartment for freezing food, it was quite common for households to buy a separate freezer. In February 1975, the average price of a 311-litre freezer was $240 ($2,270 today).

While refrigerator-freezers continue to be included in the CPI today, stand-alone freezers  and stand-alone refrigerators were dropped from the basket of goods and services after the 1988 and 2006 CPI reviews, respectively.

Dishwashers added to CPI basket in 1980

Dishwashers started to become known as a home kitchen appliance in the 1950s. In earlier years, only restaurants, hotels, and wealthy families had dishwashers, as they were large and expensive appliances (Thompson, 2009). Over the following decades, they became smaller, cheaper, and more efficient, which saw them grow in popularity among households. In 1980, dishwashers were added to the CPI basket.

Electric ranges tracked from 1974

Before electricity became widespread, it was common for households to cook food using a coal, wood, or coke range. As electricity generation and gas supply reached more areas, electric ranges and gas ranges became popular.

In the 1945 Census, 38 percent of New Zealand dwellings used coal, wood, or coke ranges to cook; 30 percent used electric ranges; 24 percent used gas ranges; and the rest used other means or combination of methods (Department of Statistics, 1945).

Twenty-six years later, these proportions had changed, reflecting the increasing popularity of electricity for cooking. In the 1971 Census, 87 percent of New Zealand dwellings had electric stoves, 8 percent had gas, and 5 percent had coal, coke, or wood ranges (Department of Statistics, 1975).

The electric range was added to the CPI basket of goods and services in 1974.

In 1974, the CPI underwent a fundamental conceptual change – from using a consumption-based approach to an expenditure-based approach. This greatly affected the treatment of owner-occupied housing, with estimation based on the purchase and construction of dwellings, rather than on the ‘user cost’ of consuming housing services. As the means of cooking was previously considered part of housing, it was not directly included in the CPI basket until the conceptual change in 1974.

Microwave ovens included in 1988

“The microwave oven is one of the most innovative and widely used kitchen appliances today” (The People History, 2004–13). Microwave ovens were developed in the 1940s. The first products sold were much larger than we have today. They were “about the size of a refrigerator. These were sold in limited numbers to restaurants” (IEEE Global History Network, 2012). Microwave ovens became smaller and less expensive in the 1960s, and by the mid-1970s, the meal preparation time-savers were widespread in homes.

The microwave oven was added to the CPI basket in 1988. The average price then was $790 (about $1,330 in today’s terms). In the December 2012 quarter, a 32-litre microwave oven had an average price of $260, less than one-third of its actual average price in 1988.

Sewing machines offer relief from hand sewing

The sewing machine was invented centuries ago. It became popular in the home by offering women relief from hours of hand sewing, especially at a time when it was more common to make clothes than buy them ready-made. Sewing machines were included in the CPI basket when the modern CPI was first published in 1949. At that time they retailed at an average price of £34 (about $2,390 today).

Sewing machines have evolved over time – from initially being pedal-driven to electric and then to electronic. Today, a machine can come with programmable stitches, embroidery units, and buttonhole functions, with prices varying widely, depending on the available features. Prices start at less than $200, for those with basic stitch features, and go to over $7,000, for those with embroidery units. In the December 2012 quarter, the average price of a sewing machine tracked in the CPI was $2,280.

Cleaning becomes easier with vacuum cleaners

Vacuum cleaners entered the CPI basket in 1949. They have been a cleaning companion for many households for decades, as they made cleaning much easier than sweeping and dusting was. In February 1949, the average price of a vacuum cleaner was £29 (about $2,040 in today’s terms).

In the 1966 Census, nearly 90 percent of New Zealand households owned a vacuum cleaner (Department of Statistics, 1966). At that time, it took about one-and-a-half weeks’ average earnings (before-tax) to cover the price of a vacuum cleaner (£27), with average ordinary-time weekly earnings of £18.

Vacuum cleaners continue to be an important appliance in the home up to this day. Prices have become much cheaper over time, and newer technologies have been introduced, such as retractable power cords, suction controls, and bagless models. In the December 2012 quarter, the average price of a 2,200-watt vacuum cleaner tracked in the CPI was $390. This was less than half the average ordinary time weekly earnings of $872 at the same time.

With people leading busy lives and not making time to clean the house themselves, hiring someone to do the job has become popular. Housekeeping charges were added to the CPI basket in 2008. At that time, the average charge for cleaning a three-bedroom house was $59. After four-and-a-half years, in the December 2012 quarter, this service had risen to $72.

Motor mowers overtake hand mowers

Hand lawn mowers that do not use any type of electricity or petrol were included in the 1949 CPI basket. At that time, the hand mower was £7 (about $470 today). A similar type of lawn mower is still available.

Motor mowers were around in New Zealand in the early 1920s, before they became popular. The first New Zealand-made petrol-powered lawn mower was manufactured in 1938, but this was beyond the reach of most New Zealand households well into the 1950s and 1960s (Envirohistory NZ, 2009). In 1965, motor-powered lawn mowers in ‘reel’ type and ‘rotary’ type were added to the CPI basket. At that time, they were £47 and £67, respectively (or $1,720 and $2,500 in today’s terms). With average weekly earnings of £17 in 1965, it would have taken three to four weeks’ gross earnings to cover the price of a motor mower. Despite the cost, it was quite common for households to own one.

In the 1971 Census, nearly two in three households owned a motorised lawn mower (Department of Statistics, 1975).

Prices for both hand mowers and motor mowers were tracked until 1974. However, the popularity of hand mowers was declining, such that after the 1974 CPI Review, only motor mower prices were tracked.

Over the years, motor mowers have become cheaper relative to earnings. The average price of a 46cm rotary lawn mower in the December 2012 quarter was about $700, less than a week’s average gross earnings as measured by the QES.

As with housekeeping, it has now become popular for some households to hire someone to mow their lawns. Lawn mowing services were added to the CPI basket in 2008. The average charge for lawn mowing then was $28, which generally included green waste removal, edge trimming, and weed control. By the December 2012 quarter, this had risen to $34.

Summary

Household chores involved lots of elbow grease in the early 20th century. The invention of labour-saving appliances helped make these chores easier and quicker over the years. The CPI has tracked household appliances since 1949, reflecting ongoing innovations that have changed the nature of housework.

We also saw how prices have changed over time. Initially, appliances were expensive relative to average weekly earnings. Now, even with more sophisticated features, the prices of these appliances have fallen relative to average earnings, making them more affordable for households.

Figure 1 summarises the relationship of the major household appliances in the CPI and the QES average ordinary time weekly earnings index from 1999 to 2012.

Figure 1

Major household appliances
Table 1 summarises information about appliances in the CPI and their costs over time.

Table 1

Summary of appliances in CPI basket
Year added to CPI basket Appliance Price at time appliance added to basket QES average weekly earnings at time appliance added to basket  Original price in today’s terms(1) Price at Dec 12 quarter QES average weekly earnings at Dec ’12 quarter 
 1949 Washing machine

£60

 £470 a year(2)
(£9 a week)

$4,170

$780

$872

Vacuum cleaner

£29

$2,040

$390 

Hand mower

£7

$470

Sewing machine

£34

$2,390

$2,280 

 1955 Refrigerator

£98

£715 a year(3)
(£14 a week)

$4,770

$1,470 

 1965 Motor mower, reel

£47

£17

$1,720

Motor mower, rotary

£67

$2,500

$700 

 1988 Microwave oven

$790

$451

$1,330

$260 

1. Price at the time appliance was added to the basket adjusted by the increase in the CPI from then to the December 2012 quarter.
2. Median income for males (estimated) from 1951 Census.
3. Median income for males from 1956 Census.
Symbol:
… not applicable (ie appliance had been dropped from the CPI basket)

Source: Statistics New Zealand

References

Bailey, E (nd). The history of the tumble dryer.  Available from www.ehow.com

Census of Statistics Department (1945). Population Census 1945.

Census of Statistics Department (1951). Population Census 1951.

Department of Labour (1957-1989). Labour and Employment Gazette and Statistical Tables.

Department of Statistics (1956). Population Census 1956.

Department of Statistics (1966). Census of Population and Dwellings, 1966.

Department of Statistics (1975). Census of Population and Dwellings, 1971.

Department of Statistics (1980). Census of Population and Dwellings, 1976.

Envirohistory NZ (2009). The lawnmower – The great New Zealand love affair. Available from http://envirohistorynz.com

IEEE Global History Network (2012). Microwave ovens. Available from www.ieeeghn.org

Khoria, V (2009). Basics of washing machines. Available from http://wash.vkhoria.co.in

Ministry for Culture and Heritage (2012). Overview – NZ in the 1950s. Available from www.nzhistory.net.nz

Smith, P (nd). In praise of the humble washing machine. Available from www.kiwiboomers.co.nz

Statistics New Zealand (2013). QES average ordinary time weekly earnings. Available from www.stats.govt.nz

The People History (2004–13). The changes to home appliances over the last 50 years. Available from www.thepeoplehistory.com

Thomson, J (2009). History of the dishwasher. Available from http://ezinearticles.com

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